Attila the Hun was the leader of the Hunnic Empire from 434 to 453 A.D. Also called Flagellum Dei, or the “scourge of God,” Attila was known to Romans for his brutality and a penchant for sacking and pillaging Roman cities. He’s considered one of the greatest “barbarian” rulers in history, having successfully expanded the rule of the Huns and maintained a near-perfect record in battle.
Attila’s Early Life
The Huns were a nomadic tribe from Central Asia that scholars believe may have begun to enter Europe by the 2nd century A.D. or earlier.
The main body of the Huns had definitively entered Europe and conquered the Alans (ancient Iranian nomads) by the mid-370s. They also invaded the Pontic steppes and forced thousands of Goths to seek refuge in Roman cities in the Lower Danube.
Attila was born north of the Danube River shortly after this activity, sometime in the early 5th century A.D.
Though ancient Rome considered the Huns to be barbarians, Attila’s upbringing was far from the brutish affair one might expect.
Attila, along with this elder brother Bleda, was born into the most powerful family in the Hunnic Empire. During the 420s and early 430s, the Hun brothers’ uncles, Octar (Uptaros) and Ruga (Roga or Rua), ruled the Hunnic Empire.
As such, Attila and Bleda learned archery, sword fighting and lasso use, how to ride and care for horses, and military and diplomatic tactics. The brothers also spoke and possibly read Gothic and Latin.
Coming into Power
Attila and Bleda inherited the Hunnic Empire from Octar and Ruga after the uncles died in 434.
Octar was the king of the western wing of the Huns who expanded the Empire into Germany and reportedly died of overeating. Ruga was the eastern overlord who waged war against the Eastern Roman Empire and allegedly died by a lightning strike while invading Thrace.
Attila and Bleda’s inherited empire stretched from the Rhine region to the borders of Sassanian Iran in the Caucasus.
Early in his rule, Attila allied with the Western Roman general Aetius, who had previously been a hostage of the Huns. From 436 to 437, Attila and Aetius destroyed the Burgundian kingdom of modern-day Poland.
Attila and Bleda would continue to give Aetius military support, allowing the Roman to squash threats from both internal revolts and various Germanic tribes (Franks, Visigoths and Burgundians).
Peace of Margus
In 434, Ruga, before his death, threatened all-out war against the Roman Empire if it did not return fugitive Hunnic princes. Emperor Theodosius II decided to negotiate, and the eventual result was the 438 Peace of Margus (or Treaty of Margus, named after the city in modern-day Serbia where it was signed).
The terms of the peace treaty required the Roman Empire agreed to pay Attila and Bleda 700 pounds of gold a year. Though the Roman Empire made good on its promise, the peace did not last.
In 441, the Eastern Roman Empire sent an army to the newly established Vandal-Alan kingdom in North Africa. The Hunnic kings took this opportunity to invade the Balkans, forcing the Roman army, which had reached Sicily, to turn back to face the Huns.
Attila and Bleda reportedly did not see their actions as breaking the peace treaty, however. Rather, they were avenging wrongs: The bishop of Margus stole treasure from their royal tombs and the Roman Empire did not return some of the Hunnic fugitives, they claimed.
By 443, the Huns had reached as far south as Constantinople and had sacked a number of cities along the way, including Naissus (Niš) and Serdica (Sofia).
Attila forced Theodosius into a new treaty: The Huns would receive the missing fugitives and be paid 2,100 pounds of gold annually, as well as a lump sum of 6,000 pounds of gold (arrears for the Roman payments that stopped when the Huns broke the initial treaty).
It’s unknown what Attila did in the two years following the peace treaty. But in 445, Attila became the sole ruler of the Hunnic Empire when his brother died. Experts believe Attila had his brother assassinated.
Hunnic Empire Rises
Once again, peace with the Romans did not last: In 447, Attila launched his greatest war on the Eastern Roman Empire yet.
Attila decimated Roman armies at the river Utus (though suffered great losses himself) and then at Chersonesus in the Gallipoli peninsula. He and his Huns went on to sack more than 70 cities in the Balkans and penetrated deep into Greece, but were stopped at Thermopylae, leading to yet another peace treaty negotiation with harsh penalties for the Romans.
The Hunnic Empire was now at the height of its power and reach, with Attila ruling over Scythia, Germania and Scandinavia (referred to as the Islands of the Ocean).
Until that time, Attila had been on good terms with the Western Roman Empire, thanks in part to his relationship with General Aetius. That changed in 450, however, when princess Honoria, sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, appealed to Attila for help.
Honoria wanted to escape an arranged marriage to an aristocrat that her brother was forcing on her. She sent a message to Attila, along with a ring, which Attila interpreted as a betrothal.
The Hunnic king claimed Honoria as his newest bride (he had multiple by then) and demanded half of the Western Roman Empire as her dowry.
Emperor Valentinian III refused but Attila was not one to give up easily and waged war against the Western Roman Empire (some historians believe Honoria was simply an excuse to invade the West).
Attila’s Final Years and Death
In the spring of 451, Attila launched an attack on Gaul (France) with 200,000 of his men. He went up against the Roman army led by his old ally General Aetius, who had joined forces with the Visigoths and Gaul’s other “barbaric” tribes (Franks, Burgundians and Alans).
The armies finally clashed at the famous Battle of Catalaunian Plains (also called the Battle of Chalons). In the end, the Visigoth king (Theodorid) died and most of the Western Roman army was destroyed, but the allied forces against the Huns held ground.
Attila retreated his army back to central Europe. The battle is largely considered Attila’s first and only battlefield loss.
Despite the failed campaign into Gaul, Attila launched an attack on Italy the very next year in 452. He sacked both Milan and Aquileia (among other places) but reportedly decided to pull back after meeting with Pope Leo I.
In A.D. 453, Attila died in bed – supposedly due to a nosebleed caused by a brain hemorrhage – after a heavy feast and drinking on his wedding night to new bride Ildico.
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Rome Halts the Huns; National Geographic.
Nice Things to Say About Attila the Hun; Smithsonian.
Attila the Hun: Biography of the ‘Scourge of God'; LiveScience.