Attila the Hun (circa 406-53), king of the Huns (circa 433-53)
One of the most feared and notorious barbarians of all time, Attila is believed to
be of distant Mongol stock, he ravaged much of the European continent during
the 5th century AD. Apparently Attila was as great a menace to the Teutonic
tribespeople as he was to the Romans.
There is a story that he claimed to own the actual sword of Mars, and that other
Barbarian chiefs could not look the King of the Huns directly in the eyes without
flinching. Attila was a striking figure, and Edward Gibbon in The History of the
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire offered a famous description of the
personality and appearance of the Hun, based on an ancient account:
His features, according to the observation of a Gothic historian, bore the stamp of
his national origin . . . a large head, a swarthy complexion, small, deep-seated
eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a
short square body, of a nervous strength, though of a disproportioned form. The
haughty step and demeanour of the king of the Huns expressed the
consciousness of his superiority above the rest of mankind; and he had a custom
of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he
inspired....He delighted in war; but, after he had ascended the throne in a mature
age, his head, rather than his hand, achieved the conquest of the North; and the
fame of an adventurous soldier was usefully exchanged for that of a prudent and
In his own day he and his Huns were known as the "Scourge of God," and the
devastation they caused in Gaul before the great Battle of Châlons in 451 AD
became a part of medieval folklore and tradition.
The rumors of his cannibalistic practices are not unfounded; he is supposed to
have eaten two of his sons. The circumstances of this act, however, may be
more accurately depicted in the Edda poems where his revengeful wife serves
him the meat of his sons under the guise that it was the meat of a young animal.
From the year 433 Attila shared the throne with his brother Bleda, but killed him
At the outset of his reign, Attila demanded more money, and the Eastern
Emperor, Theodosius II, obligingly doubled the annual subsidy. For various
reasons, however, the new king began in the late 440's to look to the West as
the main area of opportunity for the Huns. For the next decade and a half after
his accession Attila was the most powerful foreign potentate in the affairs of the
Western Roman Empire. His Huns had become a sedentary nation and were no
longer the horse nomads of the earlier days. The Great Hungarian Plain did not
offer as much room as the steppes of Asia for grazing horses, and the Huns were
forced to develop an infantry to supplement their now much smaller cavalry. As
one leading authority has recently said, "When the Huns first appeared on the
steppe north of the Black Sea, they were nomads and most of them may have
been mounted warriors. In Europe, however, they could graze only a fraction of
their former horse power, and their chiefs soon fielded armies which resembled
the sedentary forces of Rome."
By the time of Attila the army of the Huns had become like that of most
Barbarian nations in Europe. It was, however, very large, as we shall see, and
capable of conducting siege operations, which most other Barbarian armies
could not do effectively.
In any event the Hunnic invasion of Gaul was a huge undertaking. The Huns had
a reputation for cruelty that was not undeserved. In the 440's one of Attila's
attacks against the East in the Balkans aimed at a city in the Danubian
provinces, Naissus (441-42). It was located about a hundred miles south of the
Danube on the Nischava River. The Huns so devastated the place that when
Roman ambassadors passed through to meet with Attila several years later, they
had to camp outside the city on the river. The river banks were covered with
human bones, and the stench of death was so great that no one could enter the
city. Many cities of Gaul would soon suffer the same fate.
After securing a strong position on the Roman side of the Danube the Huns were
checked by the famous Eastern Roman general, Aspar, as they raided Thrace
By 447 he advanced through Illyria and devastated the whole region between the
Black and the Mediterranean seas. Those of the conquered who were not
destroyed were compelled to serve in his armies. He defeated the Byzantine
emperor Theodosius II; Constantinople was saved only because the Hunnish
army, primarily a cavalry force, lacked the technique of besieging a great city.
The Huns marched as far as Thermopylae and stopped only when the Eastern
Emperor, Thodosius II, begged for terms.
Attila accepted payment of all tribute in arrears and a new annual tribute of 2,100
pounds of gold. The Huns were also given considerable territory south of the
Danube. One source says of this campaign, "There was so much killing and
bloodletting that no one could number the dead. The Huns pillaged the churches
and monasteries, and slew the monks and virgins . . . They so devastated Thrace
that it will never rise again and be as it was before." This strong victory in the
East left Attila free to plan the attack on the West that culminated in the invasion
Theodosius, however, was compelled to cede a portion of territory south of the
Danube River and to pay a tribute and annual subsidy.
Two other considerations proved especially important.One was the death of the
Eastern Emperor Theodosius II, who fell from his horse and died in 450. His
successor, Marcian (450-7), took a hard line on Barbarian encroachment in the
Balkans and refused to pay Attila the usual subsidy. The fury of the Hun was
monstrous, but he decided to take out his wrath on the West, because it was
weaker than the East,and because one of history's most peculiar scandals gave
Attila a justification for war with the Western Emperor. Honoria, Emperor
Valentinian's sister, had been discovered in 449 in an affair with her steward. The
unfortunate lover was executed, and Honoria, who was probably pregnant, was
kept in seclusion. In a rage she smuggled a ring and a message to the King of
the Huns and asked Attila to become her champion. He treated this as a
marriage proposal and asked for half of the Western Empire as her dowry. So
when he crossed the Rhine, he could claim that he merely sought by force what
was his by right of betrothal to Honoria.
After massive preparations Attila invaded the Rhine with a large army of Huns
and allied Barbarian tribes. In his force was a sizable body of Ostrogoths and
other Germanic warriors, including Burgundians and Alans who lived on the
Barbarian side of the frontier. The Franks were split between pro- and anti-Roman
factions. As early as April Attila took Metz, and fear swept through Gaul. Ancient
accounts give figures that range between 300,000 and 700,000 for the army of
Whatever the size, it was clearly enormous for the fifth century AD. Some of the
greatest cities of Europe were sacked and put to the torch: Rheims, Mainz,
Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms and Trier. Paris fortunately had the advantage of
having a saint in the city and was spared because of the ministrations of St.
an appropriately barbarian death. He took a new, young, beau-
tiful bride, a damsel named Ildico, though he already had a
coterie of wives. The wedding day was spent in heavy drinking
and partying, and the King of the Huns took his new bride to
bed that night in drunken lust. The next morning it was dis-
covered that he had died--drowned in his drunkenness in his
own nosebleed. The new bride was found quivering in fear in
the great man's bedquarters. The empire of the Huns dissi-
pated nearly as quickly as its most famous leader. In 454 the
Ostrogoths and other Germanic tribes revolted against the
Huns, and the sons of Attila, who had quarreled among them-
selves, could not deal with the crisis.
Selected Thoughts of Atilla the Hun
Written reports have purpose only if read by the king.
A wise chieftan never kills the Hun bearing bad news. Rather, the wise chieftan kills the Hun who fails to deliver bad
Great chieftains never take themselves too seriously.
A Hun can achieve anything for which he is willing to pay the price.
Every decision involves some risk.
A wise chieftan gives tough assignments to Huns who can rise to the challenge.
When in a political war, a Hun must always keep an eye to the rear.
Huns only make enemies on purpose.
Critical to a Hun's success is a clear understanding of what the King wants.
Never appoint acting chieftans.
Appoint the most capable Hun, give her both responsibility and authority, then hold her
A Hun's perception is reality for him.
Huns who appear to be busy are not always working.
Every Hun has value -- even if only to serve as a bad example.
It is best for your friends and foes to speak well of you; however, it is better for them to speak poorly of you than not at all.
When nothing can be said of a Hun, she has probably accomplished nothing very well.
Contrary to what most chieftans think, you are not remembered by what you did in the past, but by what most Huns think
Every Hun is responsible for shaping his life circumstances and experiences into success -- no other Hun, and certainly no
Roman, can do for a Hun what he neglects to do for himself.
Some Huns have solutions for which there are no problems.
Suffer long for mediocre but loyal Huns. Suffer not for competent but disloyal Huns.