Atilla became king of the Huns sometime after 435 and ruled until his death in 453. The Huns were fierce warriors who struck terror into the hearts of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Living in the Great Hungarian Plain, they dominated the northernfrontier of the Roman Empire, extracting tribute from the emperors of then Eastern and the Western Empires, especially from the wealthier East.

The Romans considered the Huns to be savage barbarians, and tales of Hunnic cruelty abound in late Roman literature. By the time of Atilla, the Huns were no longer nomadic horse archers. Settled in Hungary, they had developed an infantry army, and they differed from other barbarian tribes on the Roman frontier in their ability to conduct successful sieges of fortified cities.

According to legend, at this point Pope Leo I met Atilla in northern Italy andoverwhelmed him with a show of bravado and sacerdotal robes. We are told that a great miracle occurred, that Saints Peter and Paul presented themselves to Atilla and threatened the Hunnic leader with death if he ignored the appeals of the pope. More likely, Atilla decided to withdraw from Italy because his troops were beginning to suffer from disease and were running short of supplies. In any event, Atilla did abandon the invasion, and Italy was saved.

Atilla died the next year from a nosebleed, we are told, while celebrating hismarriage to a new, young wife. His name and that of the Huns have becomesynonymous with savagery, and in modern times the German army, especially inWorld War I, was compared with the Huns. (The term was first used in modern times when the German kaiser sent troops to help quell the Boxer Rebellion, encouraging them to fight like Huns.) Atilla left no strong leader to replace him, and the Huns quickly disappeared from the pages of history.

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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