Attila became king of the Huns sometime after a.d. 435 and ruled until his death in a.d. 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 northern
frontier 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 Attila, 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.
By the late 440s, Attila was looking west, and in 451 he moved across the Rhine and into Gaul, taking Reims, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Trier. Paris held out, while the Huns marched on into central Gaul and put Orléans under siege. At that point the Roman general Aetius mobilized a force of Romans and barbarian allies and moved out to meet the Huns. They met at the Battle of Châlons in a.d. 451. Aetius drove Attila back into his camp, and by nightfall Roman arms were victorious. Aetius, in the face of considerable criticism, allowed Attila to withdraw across the Rhine, but for the moment the Western Roman Empire had been saved.
In the following year Attila and the Huns crossed the Alps and moved into Italy, unleashing a fury of destruction. The great city of Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic, was wiped off the face of the earth. (Its surviving inhabitants later founded the modern city of Venice.) Major towns of the Po Valley fell to the invaders—Milan, Verona, Padua. It appeared that all of Italy would be overrun.
According to legend, at this point Pope Leo I met Attila in northern Italy and
overwhelmed 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 Attila and threatened the Hunnic leader with death if he ignored the appeals of the pope. More likely, Attila decided to withdraw from Italy because his troops were beginning to suffer from disease and were running short of supplies. In any event, Attila did abandon the invasion, and Italy was saved.
Attila died the next year from a nosebleed, we are told, while celebrating his
marriage to a new, young wife. His name and that of the Huns have become
synonymous with savagery, and in modern times the German army, especially in
World 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.) Attila 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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