Known as “Flagellum Dei,” or “scourge of God,” Attila the Hun was one of the most fearsome enemies the Romans ever faced.
His upbringing was privileged.
Far from the stereotype of the unwashed, uneducated barbarian, Attila was born (probably at the beginning of the fifth century A.D.) into the most powerful family north of the Danube River. His uncles, Octar and Rugila (also Ruga or Rua), jointly ruled the Hun Empire in the late 420s and early 430s. Attila and his elder brother, Bleda, received instruction in archery, sword fighting and how to ride and care for horses. They also spoke–and perhaps read–both Gothic and Latin, and learned military and diplomatic tactics; the two brothers were likely present when their uncles received Roman ambassadors.
Once Attila rose to power, the first thing he did was negotiate a (short-lived) peace with the Romans.
With the deaths of their uncles in 434, Bleda and Attila inherited joint control over the Hun Empire. Their first step was to negotiate a treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire, in which Emperor Theodosius II agreed to pay some 700 pounds of gold annually as a promise of peace between the Huns and Romans. But just a few years later, Attila claimed the Romans had violated the treaty and led a devastating series of attacks through Eastern Roman cities in 441. With Hun forces looming just 20 miles of Constantinople, Theodosius was forced to make terms, and agreed to pay Attila the staggering sum of 2,100 pounds of gold per year.
He killed his own brother to grab absolute power for himself.
After that peace treaty was concluded in 443, the Huns returned to the Great Hungarian Plain. Roman sources are hazy about what happened there over the next several years, but it seems clear that at some point Attila decided to challenge Bleda for sole power over the empire. The Roman writer Priscus, who provided what was considered the most reliable Roman account of the Huns, claimed that in 445 “Bleda, king of the Huns, was assassinated as a result of the plots of his brother Attila.” Two years later, Attila led another, even more ambitious assault on the Eastern Roman Empire. The Huns stormed through the Balkans and into Greece, and the Romans finally managed to stop them at Thermopylae, after which the Huns and Romans negotiated another complicated treaty with even harsher terms for the Romans.
He invaded Gaul to win himself a wife.
In the spring of 450, Honoria, the ambitious sister of Valentian III, emperor of Western Rome, sent Attila a ring and asked him to help her get out of the impending marriage to a Roman aristocrat her brother was forcing on her. Attila, who already had several wives (the exact number is unknown), took Honoria’s overture as a proposal. He claimed her as his newest bride, and half the Western Empire as her dowry. Honoria claimed to have intended no such thing, but her brother, furious at his sister’s scheming, was ready to send her across the Danube to placate Attila. He eventually relented, allowing her to marry the boring Roman aristocrat after all. Attila wouldn’t give up so easily, however, and would wage his next two military campaigns in Honoria’s name.
Attila suffered his first and only defeat at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.
In 451, some 200,000 of Attila’s Hun forces invaded Gaul. As they moved through the countryside, leaving slaughter and devastation in their wake, the Romans (commanded by General Flavius Aetius, previously on good terms with Attila) formed an alliance with King Theodoric I of the Visigoths. The combined Roman-Goth army confronted Attila in the decisive Battle of Catalaunian Plains, finally defeating the great Hun leader in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. Theodoric was killed in the clash, while Attila withdrew his forces and subsequently retired from Gaul. Never one to be easily discouraged, he would invade Italy the following year.
Despite his legendary lust for gold, Attila himself lived modestly and humbly.
According to Priscus, who visited Attila’s headquarters on the Great Hungarian Plain along with visiting Roman ambassadors in 449, the Hun leader threw a banquet at which he served the guests a luxurious meal on silver plates. Attila himself, Priscus observed, was served separately. He “ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher…His cup was of wood, while his guests were given goblets of gold and silver.” Unlike his subordinates, who arrogantly displayed their gold and gems on their horse’s bridle or weaponry, Attila’s “dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean.”
He died horribly (and mysteriously) on his wedding night.
Though gruesome, Attila’s death was not the fate you might have predicted for a great warrior and military leader. Even while pursuing his claim on Honoria, he decided to take yet another wife, a beautiful young woman named Ildico. They married in 453, just as Attila was preparing another attack on the Eastern Roman Empire and its new emperor, Marcian. During the wedding at Attila’s palace, the groom feasted and drank late into the night. The next morning, after the king failed to appear, his guards broke down the door of the bridal chamber and found Attila dead, with a weeping, hysterical Ildico at his bedside. No wound could be found, and it appeared that Attila had suffered a bad nosebleed while lying in a stupor and choked to death on his own blood. Some suggested that Ildico played a part in his death, or that he fell victim to a conspiracy engineered by Marcian; others dismissed it as a freak accident, or a cautionary tale about the dangers of binge drinking.
No one knows where he’s buried.
According to Priscus, Attila’s army grieved their lost leader by smearing their faces with blood and riding their horses in circles around the tent holding his body. That night, his body was encased in three coffins–one gold, one silver, one iron–and buried in a tomb filled with the weapons of his defeated enemies, along with jewels and other treasures. As legend has it, a river was diverted so that Attila could be buried in its bed, and the waters were then released to flow over the grave. The servants who buried Attila were subsequently killed to prevent them from revealing his final resting place. The location of the burial site, believed to be somewhere in Hungary, remains unknown to this day.
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